‘Relic of the ice age’

Wolverines must adjust to warming climate, proposed Trump changes
Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Photo by William F. Wood

Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park

A wolverine stands on a rock in Yellowstone National Park

On the surface, the tale of the wolverine seems like a success story.

About a century ago, the species was extirpated from the continental United States, after centuries of trapping and predator poisoning.

But by the turn of the century, the resilient species had established a population in at least five different states, after naturally migrating from Canada and realizing life in the Northern Rockies was possible again.

Today, the population numbers in the hundreds in the continental U.S., though it’s likely that the total number will never be known because of the difficulties of studying the mammal, which makes its home in the most remote areas of the Lower 48 — including Emigrant Gulch in Paradise Valley.

But that’s where the fairy tale ends.

Today, the species is facing potentially fatal threats from climate change, a lack of genetic diversity and, now, the Trump administration.

Most importantly, snow — the habitat wolverines depend on — is melting away.


What is a wolverine?

The wolverine is the largest member of the mustelid family, which also contains ferrets, badgers, otters and other weasels. Despite being about the size of a dog, the furry carnivore resembles a 50-pound bear and has the ability to take down a mature bull moose.

After seeing firsthand the vitriol surrounding wolf research, Rebecca Watters, executive director of the Wolverine Foundation, said she was attracted to researching the wolverine — it’s hard for people to have an opinion on an animal that no one ever sees or even sees traces of.

Factors like a small population size and where the species lives makes research extremely difficult. Watters said research requires tough people, helicopters and snowmobiles.

The Western United States is the southern extent of the wolverine’s range. The range of a single male wolverine can be 500 sq. miles, while a female wolverine is about 300 sq. miles, Watters said.

“Wolverines have generally been considered data deficient,” Watters said. “There have been really serious attempts in the U.S. in the past 20 years, but it’s been really intense over the past decade. We’re still at the very beginning of the learning curve.”


‘Relic of the ice age’

But one thing that is certain is that wolverines are dependent on snow for their habitat. Females only make their dens in snow, and the agile predators take advantage of their ability to navigate snow to hunt larger animals that are slowed by the drifts. When looking for wolverine habitat, researchers look for places that have snow until May 15.

“It’s essentially a relic of the ice age,” said Tim Preso, managing attorney at Earthjustice. “They occupy the coldest snowiest places left in the Northern Rockies and North Cascades.”

In the upcoming months, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to make a determination about whether wolverines should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The service was forced to reexamine the wolverine’s case by a federal judge, who reversed the agency’s 2014 determination.

In recent months, Republicans in Washington have launched an assault on the Endangered Species Act. These efforts include legislation in Congress and the Trump administration proposing rule changes to the way the act is governed by the federal Interior and Commerce departments.

Those efforts could result in the wolverine not being listed under the act or, if it is listed, getting fewer protections, said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.



In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the determination that the wolverine should be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act because its habitat is declining substantially because of a warming climate and that a lack of genetic diversity among wolverines in the United States could eventually cause issues

In 2014, the decision to list the wolverine as a threatened species was reversed, with Fish and Wildlife arguing that increasing population numbers offset any concerns about habitat loss from climate change and a lack of genetic diversity.

In 2016, a federal judge in Missoula found the service’s reversal unlawful, saying the agency’s decision ignored the best available science and ordered them to redo the determination.

In the case of the wolverine, fierce opposition by Western states, most notably Montana, likely led to the service’s reversal of its decision to list the wolverine as threatened, the judge found.

“The Court suspects that a possible answer to this question can be found in the immense political pressure that was brought to bear on this issue, particularly by a handful of western states. The listing decision in this case involves climate science, and climate science evokes strong reactions,” the judge wrote.

Preso was a lead attorney on that lawsuit that led to the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider protections for the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act.


Threatened but not protected

The proposed rule changes, which if accepted would take effect in September, could make all the difference for the wolverine, Greenwald said.

“This is right in line with the Trump administration’s efforts to unravel protections for land air water and wildlife,” Greenwald said. “We’ll all suffer for it.”

The Endangered Species Act mandates that a species be listed as threatened if it is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all of a significant portion of its range.” A species should be listed as endangered if it “is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

If it is listed, the wolverine would likely be classified as “threatened,” because it is not currently on the verge of extinction but likely will be in the future due to climate change, Greenwald said.

Another main rule change — known as the blanket 4(d) rule — that would affect wolverines is the potential rescinding of a rule that gives threatened species the same protections as endangered species, which are vastly more protected.

Under a current regulation, “threatened” species are given the same protections as “endangered” species. If the wolverine were listed as threatened under current rules, it would automatically receive protections including a prohibition against “take” — the killing or harm of the species by any means. Also, Fish and Wildlife would have to designate “critical habitat” — that is, land protected from development or use that degrades the habitat for wolverines.

Instead if the blanket rule is removed, each threatened species would have its own rule dictating its protections, which would almost guaranteed mean fewer protections for wolverines and other species, Greenwald said.

The change would not be retroactive, so species that were listed as threatened before the change would still receive the protections, said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Under the (proposed) regulations, the wolverine would not see those protections,” Hartl said.


‘Foreseeable future’

Other complex language in the proposed rules could make it more difficult to consider climate change in determining whether to list the wolverine and whether to designate critical habitat.

One proposed change would define the phrase “foreseeable future” in a way that could limit considerations of the effects of climate change in making an Endangered Species Act determination, Greenwald said.

Currently, the phrase “foreseeable future” does not define a set time frame, but the new rule states that the Services must consider the “foreseeable future” on a case-by-case basis and extend “only so far into the future as the Services can reasonably determine that the conditions potentially posing a danger of extinction … are probable.”

Greenwald said in the case of the wolverine, that change could be significant because the further out the agency is able to look when making the determination, the more intensely climate change — specifically snowpack — will impact wolverines.

“It allows Fish and Wildlife to game the system,” Greenwald said. “For the wolverine, that matters. Most of the climate models go out to 2100, so you would think they would look as far as they can. The climate effects projected in 2060 are not as severe as they are in 2100.”


‘Not prudent’

Another proposed change that would likely impact wolverines would eliminate many areas of critical habitat protections, which often create difficulties for mining and logging projects.

Under the change, habitat does not have to be considered “critical habitat” if the threat to the species is beyond the control of people wanting to use the land.

The Endangered Species Act requires that, when a species is listed, the government designate critical habitat “to the maximum extent prudent.” In the past, according to Hartl, it was considered “not prudent” to designate critical habitat only in cases when such a designation would make the species under protection vulnerable to poaching.

The new rules, though, drastically expand the list of times critical habitat designation is “not prudent,” which will open habitat critical to species recovery to development and degradation.

According to the proposal, under the new rules Fish and Wildlife “could consider whether the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of a species’ habitat or range … is not a threat to the species.” Further, the proposal states, the agency could decide not to designate critical habitat if the threats to a species are not “habitat based.”

The goal of the change is to help streamline the process and eliminate the protection of habitat that won’t end up existing in the future. The goal is to stop times when “a designation could create a regulatory burden without providing any conservation value to the species concern.”

“In such cases, a critical habitat designation ... could not prevent glaciers from melting, sea levels from rising, or increase the snowpack,” the rule reads.

Greenwald said the system is backwards.

“They’re essentially saying climate change is a threat, so why bother doing anything else?” Greenwald said. “That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. If a species is threatened by climate change, the last thing you want to do is destroy places that it lives.”


Wolverine range, population shrinking

Climate models show that the entire range of the wolverine is shrinking, and already, things have only gotten worse for the wolverine since the court case was resolved.

“One of the things we documented in the aftermath of the court’s ruling is there’s no evidence for this alleged population expansion. If anything, there was a population contraction,” Preso said.

In 2005-06, researchers captured four wolverines living in the Teton Range in Northern Wyoming. In a recent study, they caught one 13-year-old male.

In the Centennial Mountains in Idaho and Montana, there were five wolverine mortalities between 2001 and 2005. Ten years later, researchers were unable to find any wolverines in three years. Also, in the Trinity Mountains in Idaho, no wolverines were detected.

Watters, who works as a scientist and not an advocate for wolverines, said even though there has been an increase in wolverine populations over the past 100 years that doesn’t mean the population is healthy.

“Yes, the population is increasing and expanding on an absolute level,” Watters said. “Of course, when you start with a population of zero, what are you ultimately measuring that against? What is the basis for saying the population is healthy? We don’t know what the population was like before.”

Watters said that’s why the wolverine makes for an interesting debate in what the Endangered Species Act is able to do.

“In some ways this is the crux of the debate about listing: You have a trend line of a population that appears to be increasing, and you have a prediction that’s pretty solid that the thing this animal depends on is going to disappear,” she said.

But Greenwald said the wolverine is basically a land version of the polar bear.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed polar bears in 2008, the population had somewhat stabilized after hunting of the bears became better managed, but the service saw the sea ice was disappearing so quickly, leading to a lack of habitat for the species.

“They made that decision based on the fact that their habitat was threatened and predicted to decline, it’s a similar thing for wolverines,” Greenwald said.

Watters summed it up this way: “We don’t know if it’s a healthy population or not, but we know climate change threats on the horizon, if not upon us already.”